“Will someone tell me what the hell is going on here?”
When we Doctor Who fans were kids, we liked to write stories about our hero. Because we were ten year olds with no real grasp of how storytelling worked, we’d just chuck in everything we liked about the show. So, however many Doctors there were at that point would team up with UNIT to fight the Master, the Daleks, the Cybermen and whichever other monster we happened to like. What were the villains trying to achieve? Didn’t matter, just as long as they were there. The results were great fun – if you’re ten.
Unfortunately that seems to be exactly the approach Chris Chibnall has taken for Jodie Whittaker’s sendoff as the incomparable Time Lord. Despite being an apparently competent writer elsewhere Chibnall’s plotting on this show has never been big on sense or logic; this time, he truly outdid himself. The Power of the Doctor was nicely produced, with some stunning visuals and plenty of fan-pleasing cameos from the history of the show. No problem with any of that.
Trouble was, he seemed to think all of that would hide the fact that there was no actual coherent story here. In fact, there were about six stories, none properly developed, some of which actually seemed to contradict each other. So, we had:
- The CyberMasters (still a silly idea themselves) raiding a space train to kidnap a child who turned out to be an energy source, to build a Cyber-conversion planet
- The Daleks trying to cause every volcano on Earth to erupt and destroy the human race in 1916
- The Daleks trying (unfathomably) to do exactly the same thing in 2022
- The Master posing as Rasputin in 1916 Russia
- The Master kidnapping and killing seismologists (presumably to prevent them explaining that the Daleks’ plan wouldn’t work) then sticking his face into classic paintings as part of a mind game to get UNIT to arrest him
- Normal Cybermen, led by Ashad the Lone Cyberman, taking over the new UNIT HQ
- The Master trying to get the Doctor to regenerate into him to besmirch her reputation
Each of these stories, in its own right, could have been interesting. Jammed together, they were a chaotic, frenetically directed mess that never once gelled into something logical. Jamie Magnus Stone is a capable director, but his Michael Bay approach of constant fast cutting and unceasing camera movement failed to paper over the cracks between these jarring elements. The result was, to put it kindly, a mess. Which was a shame, as there was a lot of potential here, and a lot of good emotional beats for (some of) the characters.
Many of my friends do seem to have liked it. But the only reason I’ve seen given for liking it (so far) was the fan-pleasing element of all those returning Doctors and companions from the classic show. And to be fair, those bits were done well. There was some justification for the inclusion of the old Doctors – riffing on the old Virgin New Adventures books, it made sense that the Doctor would encounter her previous selves in her own mind – though just what had they done to David Bradley’s face to make him more closely resemble William Hartnell? And the concept of the Doctor’s helpful hologrammatic version of herself enabled Tegan and Ace to project their feelings about their Doctors onto it, thus giving us genuinely affecting scenes of them interacting with Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy, costumed just as they always had been.
Kudos for not trying, even though the CG technology exists, to ‘youthen’ the older actors, instead allowing them to appear exactly as they are now. And the dialogue for the scenes with their old companions was genuinely affecting – particularly Sylvester, still as good as he always was, telling Ace that the joy of letting children go is “watching them fly”.
Ace and Tegan too were nicely written as characters; not just as they had been, but as they would have developed decades after leaving the Doctor. Both Sophie Aldred and Janet Fielding were excellent, given some good material. Janet, in particular, hasn’t been seen onscreen since the 80s, and had lost none of her abrasive charisma. Ace came readily equipped with her ever-present nitro-9 explosive and Dalek-killing baseball bat (though didn’t that ultimately break in Remembrance of the Daleks?). They were great, and given the circumstances, it made sense for them to be there. Of course Kate Stewart (the ever-excellent Jemma Redgrave) would try to recruit former companions of the Doctor for UNIT.
Given all that, it seems rather churlish but necessary to say that, thematically, we’d been here before. “We used to be you,” Tegan irritably informs Yaz, and Mandip Gill’s face shows her dawning realisation of what happens when a human travels, for a time, with a near-immortal being. Trouble is, that’s the exact themes of 2006’s School Reunion, which explored them in far greater depth to far greater emotional effect. It was far from the only unoriginal thing here, though Who has never been above pillaging other stories (even its own) for dramatic effect. That’s no problem – if it works. And this, mostly, didn’t.
Still, to continue on the positive side, I loved Sacha Dhawan’s Master. Again. He has just the right level of crazy, but we also saw his quieter, even more menacing side several times. His mind games when imprisoned were inevitably reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter, but put into the perfect context for Who – needling Tegan about her murdered Aunt Vanessa, for example.
Of all the misfiring plots, this one seemed to be the one that really had the germ of a good idea. The Master’s always had a deep-seated feeling of inferiority to the Doctor – as far back as 1971’s The Mind of Evil, where we see that his greatest fear is the Doctor simply laughing mockingly at him. So it makes perfect sense, character-wise, that ultimately he would try some method to actually become the Doctor. It was telling that, for the brief period he succeeded, he ended up dressed in a grab-bag of classic Doctors’ outfits – Whittaker’s coat, McCoy’s jumper, Tennant’s tie, Davison’s celery, Tom Baker’s scarf etc. He was trying to be all the Doctors at once – and I’m betting that mashup will be big on the cosplay circuit in forthcoming conventions.
Left to develop as a story in its own right, this could have been really interesting. Trouble was, it was competing with all those other stories, even ones also including the Master. The idea of him posing as Rasputin in 1916 Russia was genuinely interesting, and could have made for another good story – but nothing at all was done with it. Once the Tsar and Tsarina left the scene about five minutes in, he could have been anywhere and anywhen. There was ultimately no purpose to any of the story being set in 1916 Russia, except perhaps as an excuse for Dhawan to demonstrate his comedy ham chops by dancing around to Boney M’s classic dissection of Russian history, Ra-Ra-Rasputin. That was undeniably great, but once again, we’d been here before. Remember John Simm’s similarly batshit Master dancing around to the Scissor Sisters in Last of the Time Lords?
The fan-pleasing reunion of all the surviving human companions left on Earth was an indulgence, but a fun one that didn’t really hurt. Obviously Romana couldn’t be dragged back from E-Space, and heaven knows whether Leela still exists, after Gallifrey’s on-again, off-again state of existence. But it was nice to see Mel Bush eventually got Sabalom Glitz to drop her home and truly delightful to see 98-year-old William Russell, one of the Doctor’s very first companions, making his first appearance as Ian Chesterton in 57 years.
The current crop of companions, though, were far less well-served. Yaz’s confession of her love for the Doctor (and the Doctor’s reciprocation of the feeling) was a huge moment in Legend of the Sea Devils. So you’d expect some kind of follow-up to that here, right? Wrong. It was barely even hinted at (perhaps if you squinted hard), and that felt like a real betrayal of the character. Particularly in this Doctor’s final story.
Still, even she got a better crack of the whip than John Bishop’s Dan. Having built up a good character, and a great rapport with the rest of the TARDIS ‘fam’ throughout the patchy Flux season, and giving us some great derring-do in the opening train raid sequence, it was a surprise to see him just bugger off ten minutes into the episode without even a proper farewell from the Doctor. Yes, she doesn’t like goodbyes, not a new feature of the character, but this came across as outright cold. File it with her similarly aloof reaction to Graham’s worries about his cancer returning, which justifiably got the writers a lot of stick at the time. No Who companion has been given such a perfunctory, uninteresting sendoff since Dodo went for a lie down in episode 2 of The War Machines and never returned.
Speaking of Graham, while it was nice to see Bradley Walsh back in the part, why exactly was he there? Even if Ace needed help nobbling the Daleks (which she plainly didn’t), it made little sense for him to just pop up like that unexpectedly. There’s surprise twists, and then there’s just shoehorning things in.
And if Graham’s inclusion seemed perfunctory and pointless, he had nothing on Vinder. A genuinely interesting character in Flux, with a good backstory, here he was just sort of… there. For no adequately explained reason. The extremely sexy Jacob Anderson did his best with the part, but mostly this version of Vinder seemed to have no character at all. Like so much here, he was simply jammed in as another recurring element robbed of what made him special in the first place.
See also – Ashad, the Lone Cyberman, reduced from a fascinating exploration of conflict between human and Cyber states of being to just the Cybermen’s boss. And since when was tissue compression reversible? If Tegan had thought about it for a moment, she should have been pretty pissed off that nobody told her Aunt Vanessa wasn’t properly dead at all.
But what of the Doctor herself? After all, this was Jodie Whittaker’s swansong, and should have been one of her best outings. Sadly, it very much wasn’t – not through any fault of the actor, who was as engaging as ever, but mostly due to the execrable writing. She did well with her distrust, hatred and fear of the Daleks, but fared less well with the supposedly ‘emotional’ bits of dialogue. This wasn’t her fault – they were clumsily written, and any actor would have had trouble making them seem sincere.
Particularly in her Big Regeneration Speech. These are actually a fairly new thing – in fact they were established by Steven Moffat, and up till now only Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have had them. Reaching for Moffat levels of heartstring-tugging poetry, Chibnall seems to have found himself incapable of it, relying instead on well-regarded classic speeches. “There’s nobody who can do what we’re doing,” Jodie tells Yaz, pretty much quoting Partick Troughton in Tomb of the Cybermen. “I loved being the Doctor,” she continues, combining Time Crash’s “I loved being you” with Time of the Doctor’s “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”. Emerging from the TARDIS to a beautiful sunrise, she exclaims, “the bloomiest bloom ever!”, channelling Jon Pertwee in The Time Monster – “it was the daisiest daisy I had ever seen”. There’s homage, and then there’s outright theft – say what you like about Moffat’s often florid dialogue, at least it was all his own work.
OK, I get that Chris Chibnall is coming from a place of genuine love for the show, in all its incarnations. That’s fine. And if all those callbacks cause you to enjoy a story that literally makes no sense outside of them, that’s fine too.
But the show was rightly criticised in the 1980s for its constant continuity references to its past, which pleased fans but baffled and alienated casual viewers. Russell T Davies, bringing the show back in 2005, understood this, and kept callbacks to a minimum, at least initially. Not only do they confuse non-fans, but they hearken back to a supposedly golden age when the show was, by implication, better than it is now. As RTD later managed, a few callbacks can be a good thing. Too many, and you end up with Dimensions in Time.
So not only was I underwhelmed by this finale to Chibnall’s less than golden age, I was also, uncharacteristically for me, a little bit angry about it. Because there was so much potential here, so many good ideas that could – and should – have made for a far better story than this jumbled, incoherent mess. All the beautifully written cameos from the show’s history can’t make up for that, at least not for me.
And so, mercifully, Russell T is now back. But even that has me sceptical. Having the Doctor regenerate not into Ncuti Gatwa – not yet anyway – but back into David Tennant seems yet another tacit admission that the show is failing and needs to reset to an era where it was undeniably popular. Nothing against Tennant, but when even the Tory party think better of bringing back their old leading man, I’m surprised RTD did so. Still, it’s a new beginning, and Russell is a very clever dramatist – I hope he can pull this off in a way that makes more sense than The Power of the Doctor.